A 17th Century French soldier wearing a Steinkirk cravat (named after the battle of Steenkerque).
The cravat has a long lineage. These beautiful garments make for a comfortable and stylish finish to a collar or suit. Its origins however are somewhat shrouded in mystery.
When trying to ascertain the origin of what we know as the cravat, it’s important to acknowledge one thing - there’s a great deal of debate! Cravats are generally known to be an evolution of the neckerchief, and the tie is said to be a development of the cravat - but where do you draw the line?
A Symbol of Croatia
Changing of the guard in Zagreb to mark World Cravat Day (October 18).
The word “cravat” is a corruption of the word “Croat”, for Croatian. The country’s name in the native language is Hrvatska, which when pronounced makes it easy to see where the word came from. While the garment and the country are virtually synonymous with each other, the whole story is not quite as simple as that. The cravat’s history may be longer than we once thought, with a few examples throughout the ancient world casting doubt on the popular origin story.
From Ancient Asia to Renaissance Europe, let’s have a better look at where the cravat as we know and love it came from.
Just outside the great Chinese city of Xi’an, home to more than twelve million people, there lies one of the most famous archeological sites on earth. Discovered relatively recently by farmers in the 1970s, The Terracotta Army was designed to protect the Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, and consists of over 8000 figures, mainly soldiers.
The first emperor of unified China, and something of a tyrant, Huang demanded something as grandiose to protect him beyond the grave as he demanded in life. The huge necropolis is testament to his legacy in China, and is a world-famous tourist attraction that draws over one million visitors a year to this dry region of the country.
The terracotta soldiers are organised by their rank, with different figures being made to different sizes. Moreover, each individual soldier seems to wear a neckerchief; in Huang’s army, neckerchiefs of different colours were used to denote rank and status, and presumably were used so his soldiers could distinguish each other.
The terracotta army is probably the first documentation we have of silk neckerchiefs being used en masse, and with China being the birthplace of silk itself, it’s very possible that it is the originator of the silk neckerchief too. There are, however, other theories…
Another contender for the inventors of the cravat are, as with many other things, the Romans. As in China, the use of a neckerchief was military; soldiers wore wool or linen scarves to prevent their skin chafing against their armour. This was known as a focale, or a coarser kind, a sudarium or sweat cloth. Not used to denote rank, their use was generally for utility, though the fashion spread from the military into civilian fashion.
Often given as a gift during Saturnalia, the pagan precursor of Valentine’s Day, the emperor Nero was described as wearing one as part of his casual wear, emphasising their slow switch from military to fashionable use.
The word “cravat” for the Roman garment finally appears many years later in the 1500s, with the Renaissance engraver Cesare Vecellio, who wrote that the Roman soldiers wore cravata to protect their necks on long marches. Vecellio was the great Titian’s cousin and assistant, and he put the origin of the garment as somewhere around the 6th century.
A later entry from a 19th century encyclopaedia also put the cravat as a Roman invention. An accurate portrayal, or the limited knowledge of a bygone time? It’s hard to know. What we do know however, is that the garment was to reach its apex later on in Europe.
The French Army
Despite these much earlier origins, we know that a cravat similar to those worn today was used by King Louis XIV’s army in the 16th century. While many European fashions at the time were influenced by France and the French court, it was not actually a French invention.
As is now well known, the cravat was traditional military dress in Croatia, where the king recruited his mercenaries. While the lower ranks of soldiers wore cravats of cotton or taffeta, those of the officers were of exceptionally high quality, featuring fine silk and lace, and were as decorative as they were functional.
This novel military garb began to catch on in the civilian fashions back home in France, and the coarser utilitarian type fell out of favour. The shift from a purely military use to an item of high fashion was complete, and the Croatian cravat became a mark of good taste and luxury.
A Dubrovnik Poet
There is a theory that suggests the poet Ivan Gundulić was the creator of the cravat. Regarded in many ways as the Croatian national poet, he is known for his famous pastoral play Dubravka, a love song to his hometown of Dubrovnik, as well as the epic poem Osman, written about the intersection of Christianity and Islam in Europe.
The story about him inventing the cravat, apart from his centrality to Croatian culture, seems to come from a portrait hanging in the magnificent Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik. The scholar depicted in it is said to be Gundulić, proudly wearing a cravat, emblematic of both the town and the nation. Whether or not the portrait is actually of him is up for debate, but his importance to Croatian history is not, and World Cravat Day is celebrated on the 18th of October in Croatia in his honour.
Utility & Beauty
It is hard to pinpoint just one period when the cravat came to be. Certainly its popularity as a genteel fashion accessory comes from Croatia via France, but there is definitely influence from elsewhere too, with similar garments used in more than one ancient army. Whether used as a practical solution in battle, or as a striking piece to denote status, the cravat’s long journey from the barracks to the cocktail bar continues today, with beautiful designs, high-quality fabrics and a unique finish to your outfit.
If you’d like to explore the endless possibilities a cravat or ascot can give your attire, have a look at our range of printed Grade-A silk accessories, all handmade in England. We can’t promise it will make your epic poetry better, but it could provide a stunning finish to your favourite ensemble, and lend some individuality to your next night out.